Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Hearing Voices

The idea of a writer's voice is an intriguing subject to me. Voice is what makes Jane Austen Jane Austen. Writers with a distinctive voices tend, I think, to be the ones we read most and remember best--Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf. We are not likely to read an Emily Dickinson poem and mistake it for T.S. Eliot or vice versa. So it was with much pleasure I dove into The Writer's Voice by A. Alvarez. The Writer's Voice consists of three parts, "Finding a Voice," "Listening," and "The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist." In the first part Alvarez defines voice and how it develops. He declares

Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it's usually talking about what its owner is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. the point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way.
I do agree that voice is important but I wouldn't go so far as to say that imaginative literature is all about voice, there are other elements I think are important too like a good story. But to Alvarez voice makes the story; it must be "alive and urgent enough to take hold of the reader and make him understand that what is being said really matters." While writers must find their voice, readers must learn to hear it. In "Listening," Alvarez writes that hearing a writer's voice is a skill, that in its own way it is an art, "born out of the same obscure passion that animates every writer--the love of language." A good reader must listen attentively in order to hear the "tones and overtones and changes of pitch." To listen in this manner, says Alvarez, is "the opposite of speed-reading; it is like reading out loud--but silently in the head." This last idea--reading out loud but silently in the head--prompted a bit of discussion between my Bookman and I. When I read I read every word and pronounce every word in my head. Speed reading and I do not get along. I asked my Bookman if when he reads does he hears every word in his head? At first he wasn't sure, he'd never really though about it. Then he decided that while he took in every word, saw every word on the page, he didn't hear every word in his head. It would be really interesting to be able to plug in a microphone and listen in on someone's "silent" reading, to be able to hear what reading sounds like in someone else's head. Finally, Alvarez turns to "The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist." He believes something has been lost in literature. Interestingly, he places a large chunk of blame on the Beats:
we are now living with the aesthetic consequences of their antics: socialist realism transformed by free enterprise into free-market Surrealism. The result is poetry as feel-good entertainment and, above all, the belief that any old confession or self-revelation is intrinsically artistic because an artist is not someone who uses skill and insight to create a work of art with a life of its own; instead, he is a public personality, a performer whose primary work of art is himself and whose ambition is to make himself known.
I don't know if the Beats can be blamed for anything here, but whatever the cause, the results are valid. The writer as public personality is part of a celebrity obsessed culture, a culture based on the cult of personality where everybody is trying to be somebody or at least know someone. It's commercialism and commodification. I wouldn't want writers to all become recluses though, wouldn't want to give up going to a reading. I think there is something to be gained listening to a writer read from her/his own book. The myth of what an artist's life is like hangs on. It is, in part, sometimes perpetuated by artists themselves. That is one reason it is always interesting to see an author live--you realize that s/he is a regular person just like you. Alvarez attempts to poke a hole in the myth by explaining that "an artist is what he is not because he has lived a more dramatic life than other people, but because his inner world is richer and more available and also, more importantly, because he loves and understands whichever medium he uses--language, paint, music, film, stone--and wants to explore its possibilities and make of it something perfect." Here's to the search for perfection.